#157: This Must Be the Place

If you grow up in the suburbs, a familiar experience is going over to a friend’s house for the first time and recognizing its layout as identical to that of another friend’s house you’ve already visited, if not your own house. While many suburban developments, like the iconic Levittown, have consisted of homes that were literally mass produced on an assembly line, many more enclaves comprise a variety of lightly scattered architectural templates, their sameness disguised by individualized facades but apparent as soon as you step inside. This experience of recurrence mirrors other patterns that predominate in suburban (and increasingly, urban) environments: the ready-made familiarity of chain stores and restaurants that you’ve already encountered elsewhere, only distinguished by slight variations, appearing in similar clusters throughout a metropolitan area. In an excellent Twitter thread last year, Chenoe Hart observed that the common critique of suburbia as placeless can be reframed as “visiting the same place in multiple different locations…as if it was a mobile place.” She adds, “One result of that phenomenon is that you may apply existing familiar memories to new places you have never visited before.”

I recently described the suburban environment as “post-spatial space,” and in fact it does represent a technologically-enabled remixing or refactoring of space more than an annihilation of it. Due to high-speed transportation and electronic communication, vastly more space is accessible from any specific location, and the suburbs maximize that access by minimizing the particularities that differentiate far-flung locations. The internet, of course, further amplifies these tendencies, precipitating the final explosion of space into tiny units of content that seem to circulate independently of one another. The rooms we see in the background of YouTube and TikTok videos are just as familiar as the patterns we keep encountering in cities and suburbs, now framed by rectangular browser windows and phone screen edges, which effectively become part of their architecture. Describing this phenomenon, Paul Ford writes, “The people dancing and talking and singing in beige rooms with 8' ceilings are surrounded by standards, physically and online. Technological standards like HTML5 also allow us to view web pages and look at video over the Internet. All of their frolic is bounded by a set of conventions that are essentially invisible yet define our national physical and technological architecture. Their dancing, talking bodies are the only non-standardized things in the videos.” Those physical and digital standards facilitate circulation by imposing form upon chaos, priming their objects to fluidly traverse markets and networks with maximum agility.

Robin Sloan recently defined content as “the specific kind of media designed for platforms and algorithms,” media for which the form is determined by the platform, and the built environment increasingly fits this definition, modulating its own design in order to play better digitally. After ten years of widespread adoption, Instagram now shapes the physical world in obvious ways, nudging restaurants, hotels, and retail products to become more Instagrammable—a standardization process Kyle Chayka described as AirSpace in 2016. Like a freeway exit we’re encountering for the first time, everything new feels increasingly familiar, composed of elements designed for easy digestion by platforms and their users, but this conformity, unlike its pre-digital version, derives not from fear or authority but from an utter lack thereof. In an environment of nearly infinite variety, we seem to hunt more eagerly than ever for shared territory and common experience, however fleeting. Earlier this month a house in Santa Monica, currently on the market for $5 million, became available to TikTok influencers, who can apply to spend two hours filming amid its pool and amenities as long as they help market the house in their videos. The process by which Airbnb transformed shelter into a liquid commodity might similarly transform content creation sites, which is to say that humans and content will soon have to compete for housing. The next time you enter a new place and instantly recognize its layout, it might be that you’ve been in a similar one before, but you probably just saw it on the internet.

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Last week I wrote about how retail environments are becoming more logistical and how the boundary between consumption and labor has grown increasingly blurry.